How can you know what you want or feel or think—who you are—if you don’t know which way history’s marionette strings are tugging?” Malcolm Harris asks early in Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World. Such a question sits at the heart of much of Harris’s work. His debut, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, explores the material forces at work on the titular generation. With Palo Alto, he turns his lens on another cohort: Northern Californians past, present, and future.
Harris’s interest in these groups isn’t random. He was born in Santa Cruz in 1988; his family moved to Palo Alto when he was in elementary school. (Harris now lives in Washington, D.C.) He opens Palo Alto by recalling his adolescence there, which coincided with a cluster of suicides by high school students. That’s one of the things that spurred him to write the book, he says: he wanted to explore what haunted Palo Alto. Yet that’s as close as the book comes to memoir; until the concluding chapter, Harris is absent from the page.
As a conceit, it works. Harris traces a throughline of capitalism and exploitation that explains both the grueling pressure put on bright young people in prestigious enclaves such as Palo Alto, and also that pressure’s historical roots. He illuminates the forces at work on not just one child but instead a generation of them.
Growing up, Harris didn’t feel like he belonged in California; a bookish kid with an interest in politics, he didn’t respond well to the Golden State’s sunny, laid-back vibe. “Really, I was just out of place in America,” he says during a recent phone call, although he didn’t figure that out until later.
Harris found his way to activism as an adolescent, participating in protests against the invasion of Afghanistan while in middle school and later encouraging fellow students to opt out of standardized testing. His reading material came from used bookstores, where he picked up tracts from the New Left and Black Power traditions.
But when he looks back on those purchases, he sees the context he was then missing. “It didn’t occur to me,” he says, “that those books were put there by someone, and not just by someone but by a historical movement. These generations I write about, they read these books and then passed them down.”
At first, Harris got caught up in one of California’s most persistent myths: that the state’s sunshine continually wipes clear any accumulation of history. Now, it’s part of his work to dismantle that fantasy while explaining why, exactly, it’s dangerous to let ourselves believe our lives have no precedent.
Like so many Californians, Harris had to leave the state to see it. He moved east for college, choosing the University of Maryland because he “wanted to go to where politics was.” Then a national student movement sprang up, and “the real core was going on at the UCs,” Harris says. “To be sitting there, watching the front lines of what I saw as the most important political struggle in the country at that point,…I felt like, ‘Oh, maybe I misunderstood what California was.’ ”
Palo Alto was Harris’s pandemic project; he spent much of 2020 sitting at a park near his house, doing preliminary research. Initially, he says, he pitched the book as part memoir because he was worried it would be hard to sell a history by someone without academic credentials in the field.
But then, when he sat down to actually write it, two problems presented themselves. First was a practical issue of word count. “I realized pretty quickly that the straight history material was going to take up way more space than I thought,” Harris explains. The second problem was that “the personal stuff wasn’t as good. The writing wasn’t as good; it wasn’t working as well.” So Harris ditched the essayistic conceit, excising himself from the narrative except in glimpses. “People I grew up with will be able to see moments where I am talking about myself or my experience,” he says. “A lot of people will be able to point to connections that I didn’t make explicit. They’re there, but I just didn’t want to write about them.”
It might seem strange to work on a book about California from the other side of the country. But Harris says it felt exactly right. “Silicon Valley is everywhere,” he notes. And it is, of course. I’m typing this on an Apple MacBook, and whatever device you’re reading on likely has its roots in the Valley too.
That everywhere, Harris points out, is global. In Palo Alto, he describes how gold mined in California by Chinese expats was likely extracted by Japanese gangsters and funneled to the army. That gold was then buried in the Philippines during World War II—and once it was dug up, invested into a Silicon Valley firm.
More broadly, the American need for cheap factory labor has shaped economies all over the planet, and the American desire for governments that won’t nationalize our businesses has determined global history.
Harris’s project may have begun with the whispers of his own ghosts, but he hopes other people will see the forces that have shaped their lives. “The things I wanted to make clear is that people’s lives don’t start becoming a part of American history when they move to America,” he says. “Just because your family moved to California in the 1970s doesn’t mean your history for a hundred years before that isn’t part of California’s history.”•